Tuesday, January 31, 2012

He's Been There from the Very Start

We have a fantastic blog post for today.   But first, please check out my story for CAAZone.com on Towson snapping its 41-game losing streak.  I got to cover both the last loss of the streak and then the win Saturday.

Let me take you back to this past October.  On the CAAZone message boards, I posted a request to JMU and ODU fans.  I was looking for fans of both schools to provide input on the overall rivalry between the two schools in anticipation of the first football game between the two schools.

This resulted in both bad news and good news.  The bad news is that I only got interest from four people, and only one of them ever actually wrote back with answers to my questions.

The good news is that I struck gold (and purple) with the person who DID write back.  In his response he indicated that he was a Madison alum who participated in the first-ever basketball game between the two schools.  On January 14, 1972, Division II Old Dominion University hosted the Dukes of Madison College, a Division III program.  (They were known as Madison College until reaching “university” status in the mid-70’s.)  Unfortunately, even in today’s age of the internet, I couldn’t find an archived story on the game.  The Monarchs won the game at Scope, 99-68.

Despite advising him that I wouldn’t use his responses for my October article due to minimal responses, Gary Butler still encouraged me to contact him again if he could be of future help.  You’re telling me such a great resource was encouraging me to let him know if I needed anything else?  I kept that in the back of my mind for basketball season when our schools played.

I thought it would be an interesting conversation over email to get input from a guy who played in the first basketball game in the series.  So I sent him some questions and he was kind enough to respond.  While waiting for his response, I did some research on Gary.  Little did I know when I contacted him months ago that not only did he play in that first, he is genuinely one of the Dukes all-time great players.

Inducted into the JMU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008, Mr. Butler led the team in rebounding every year he played.  He graduated with the highest career rebounds-per-game average (11.2/game, a record he still holds.)  You can read more about him in the story of his induction, but I point out his rebounding prowess because Blaine Taylor would’ve taken him on his team, any day.

It is truly an honor to present below my Q&A with Gary, and I appreciate that he’s willing to share his thoughts with an Old Dominion fan.

1. What are one or two of your favorite memories in your basketball career at James Madison?

My high school teammate, George Toliver and I had great success at King George High School. We played together four years and only lost 7 games. Our senior year we were undefeated at 20 - 0 and lost the State Championship game to the only other undefeated team in the state. We both chose to go to Madison College to continue our basketball careers. We played on the first four NCAA Varsity teams at Madison. One of the things I am most proud of, is we never had a losing season. That is pretty remarkable for a new team.

Another memory is we still hold a lot of records that still stand today from our time there. We are also, both in the JMU Hall of Fame. Not many teammates both get that honor. George was the first player at JMU to score over 1,000 points. I am still the record holder for average rebounds per game for the top three seasons as well as career. George went on to become an NBA referee and is still in an administrative capacity with the NBA. 6 of the 10 highest scoring games at JMU were from when we played. We hold the school record for most points in a game, 146.

2. Who were the best players/teammates on the JMU squads you played on?

Obviously, George was a great player. He and I were kind of the anchors of the team and each year we were basically surrounded with a better supporting cast as recruiting got better. Sherman Dillard came the year after I graduated. He is one of the all time JMU greats.

Shortly thereafter we had a run of great teams starting in the late 70's into the early 80's that were loaded with great players. Dan Ruland, Linton Townes, Charles Fisher, Dave Dupont, Steve Blackmon, and many more. I think the early success we had paved the way to attract these great players.

3. What are your memories of the first basketball game between James Madison and Old Dominion?

Old Dominion was a well established program. We were the upstarts. It was 1972 I believe. We went to ODU and played them on their home court. I believe ODU won the DII National Championship that year. Dave Twardzik was their All America guard. He set the all time ODU career scoring record against us that night. I believe either Joel Copeland and/or Oliver Purnell were on that team, but not positive.

I remember cutting Twardzik off on the baseline and he hooked his arm around me, got by me and scored. The ref called me for a foul. I felt like we got a real home job and they were protecting Twardzik! He was a very special player and went on to have a good career with the Portland Trailblazers. We lost that game 99 to 68, but still had a 16-7 record that season. The next year we moved up to Division II and only lost to ODU 55 to 69.

4. Other than games in which you played, what is your favorite JMU/ODU basketball memory?
4a. Since I assume your previous answer will involve Kent Culuko and the CAA tournament, do you have a second-favorite JMU/ODU memory?

Obviously, Culuko's game winner tops the list. That was right in front of my seat at the Coliseum. Special moment. Another was the first time we played ODU, the atmosphere was pretty special. ODU was still wearing their powder blue colors back then. Sonny Allen was the coach. They had about 50 beautiful blonde cheerleaders that completely surrounded the entire floor. Kind of made me think that I should have gone to ODU. Everybody had a tan even though it was winter. You could just tell you were in a beach area.

(I asked Gary what he remembered specifically about the Culuko play.  It wasn’t because I hate myself and wanted to re-live the moment.  Rather, years ago I spoke with a Monarch who was on the floor at the time of the shot, and wanted to see if Gary could provide insight that matched what I was told.)

I just read something the other day about that play. It completely explained how it happened. I can't remember where I read it. It said that Culoko knew about the play and asked for it to be called. Lou Rowe brought the play with him from the University of Florida. Lou transferred to JMU form Florida. But, I don't remember anything but the ball going to Culoko in the corner and him elevating. It was one of those shots where you instantly knew it was going to go. Form was pure and shot was clean. The pandemonium that followed was what you live for in college basketball.

Another non-Culuko moment: A few years ago ODU was at our place. They hadn't removed the risers on the end of the court closest to the ODU bench. All of our students were wearing Blaine Taylor mustaches. Blaine took it all in good humor. It was really hilarious. The kind of thing that makes college basketball fun.

5. Who have been your favorite JMU players since you graduated?  Do you have any non-JMU favorite CAA players since JMU joined the conference?

Favorite players were Steve Stielper, Sherman Dillard, Derek Steele, Linton Townes, Dan Ruland, Steve Hood, Clayton Ritter, Lou Rowe, and most recently Juwann James.

Non JMU favorite players were David Robinson-Navy, Gerald Henderson-VCU,  Odell Hodge-ODU, Jesse Dark-VCU

6. Who's your favorite to win the CAA tournament this March?

Wow! Toss-up right now between George Mason, VCU, ODU, Drexel and GA State. Any of them are capable of a three day run. If I had to pick one right now, I would go with VCU.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

CAA Basketball Bloggers' Poll - Week of 1/30/2012

Below is my vote for this week's CAA Basketball Bloggers' Poll.  First there are a couple house-cleaning items to address.

First, if you already haven't done so, you MUST read Defiantly Dutch's interview with some George Mason fans.  It's worth several laugh-out-loud moments.

Second, yesterday's win by Towson over UNCW was not the only contest involving NCAA records I witnessed on campus the last few months.  Back in October, I got to cover Richmond's Aaron Corp set an FCS record for highest completion percentage by a quarterback against the Tigers.  You never know when history will be made, which is why I implored all my Towson friends to come out to the games!  Well, not going yesterday was their loss.  I've submitted my story on Towson's win for the CAAZone, and I'll share it when it gets published.

One thing that won't get posted in that story is a quick anecdote.  I should have written down the exact time of when it happened, but it was midway through the first half.  At a deadball whistle, I looked over at the Towson bench.  The players were kind of just sitting there, so one of the assistant coaches tapped a couple players on the shoulder to get them into the game.  (It wasn't anything like what Todd Bozeman was accused of doing recently; it was a simple patting.  And in full disclosure, Bozeman was reinstated without being disciplined.)  The players actually responded and cheered on their team. 

While this probably wasn't the first time a Tiger coached attempted to get the bench players to support the team, it stuck out more as the game went on and Towson got confidence.  Eventually the players were cheering more and more, not needing to be provoked.  You might think it's normal for teammates to cheer each other on, but sthe losing streak had to have deflated the Tigers.  Kudos to the coaching staff for keeping the players into the game mentally.

Robert Nwankwo threw down an alley-oop dunk to put Towson up four in the second half.  It was at that point the fans and players genuinely began to expect to win.  After the game, it was good to see students and other fans lined up to high-five the players as they ran to the locker room.

Lastly, Old Dominion hosts James Madison this Thursday.  I hope to have a Q&A posted on gameday with someone who played in the very first contest between the schools.  This will be quite an honor.

On now, on to the ballot.

1. Drexel (1st previous week) – The Dragons just keep winning, having lost only once since the first week of December.  They won easily at William and Mary Monday; Wednesday they avenged an earlier season loss to Georgia State, while handling Delaware easily Saturday.  Five of their last six wins have been by double-digits.  If Fouch is 100% healthy by the end of February, this team can win the CAA Tournament.  They already play intense defense, but the Fouch/Lee/Massenat scoring trio can be the difference.

2. George Mason (2nd previous week) – The Patriots lead the top-heavy CAA with a 10-1 conference record.  This week the Patriots beat UNCW at home, won at Hofstra by five and defeated the Dukes by ten at home.  I keep them behind Drexel because (1) Drexel has won 15 of their last 16, (2) Drexel beat them earlier in January, and (3) Drexel is playing better basketball right now.  Mason does not play Drexel the rest of the way, so Drexel owns the tiebreaker.  Ryan Pearson may be the CAA Player of the Year, especially after posting 29-15-3 against James Madison Saturday.

3. Virginia Commonwealth (3rd previous week) – Since losing two consecutive conference games early in January, the Rams have won seven straight.  This past week the downed Hofstra at home, then defeated both Towson and Georgia State on the road.  They’ve yet to play George Mason, the team with the best conference record, and they lost to Drexel this year.  I cannot put them above either of those two teams at this time.  Darius Theus had an outstanding game against Towson, posting ten assists without a turnover.

4. ODU (5th previous week) – The Monarchs bounced back well from their loss to the Rams last Saturday, beating Northeastern, UNCW and William and Mary over six days.  Had Chris Cooper gotten one more rebounds against the Tribe, it would have been his third consecutive double-double.  Old Dominion is 0-2 against the Patriots and the Rams, so they can’t be voted higher than either of them.  Transfer Donte Hill clearly makes this team better; he doesn't do one thing great, but he does many things really, really well.

5. Northeastern (6th previous week) – Northeastern is the best team in the conference outside of the top four, but the gap between the Huskies and the top is significant.  The team is 0-3 against Drexel and ODU, losing each game by double-digit points.  But Jonathan Lee and Reggie Spencer are leading the team to a nice season; they are now 11-10 after starting off 3-7 in their first ten games this season.

6. Georgia State (4th previous week) – Two weeks ago, I had the Panthers as the top team in the conference.  They had a 5-1 conference record, with the lone loss against George Mason on the road.  Since then, though, the team has lost four of five games.  Three of those losses were on the road (Northeastern, Delaware and Drexel) and the fourth was a one-point loss at home to Virginia Commonwealth.  I said last week that the team may be tiring out at this point, as too many players were averaging more than 30 minutes per game.  It doesn’t get easier for them, as they take on both UNCW and Hofstra on the road this week.

7. Delaware (7th last week) – The Blue Hens didn’t do anything to either rise or fall this week.  They beat Towson and lost to Drexel, par for the CAA course this season.  They were in position to defeat Northeastern, leading by five points with 57 seconds left.  Somehow Delaware couldn’t hold the lead, and they lost by one point.  One the one hand, it’s a deflating loss; on the other hand, they are good enough to keep Northeastern on the ropes in Boston until the very end.  Jamelle Hagins is having an underrated year, averaging 12.7 points and 10.7 boards per outing.

8. JMU (10th last week) – The depleted Dukes got their first home conference win Thursday, beating William and Mary by twelve.  But the win is sandwiched around losses at Georgia State (Monday) and George Mason (Saturday).  Despite going 1-2 this week, I moved them up for a couple reasons.  First, the final score (89-79) against the Patriots was not indicative of how well the Dukes played on the road.  They were within two points at 74-72, but GMU pulled away from there.  Second, they did win their head-to-head contest against UNCW.  Factor that information in with UNCW and Hofstra going winless in six combined games since last week, and the Dukes move up in the ballot.

9. UNCW (8th last week) – The Seahawks lost to George Mason Monday in Fairfax by only six.  They lost by only five at home Wednesday against Old Dominion.  These are understandable outcomes.  But the team was outplayed by Towson, a team that (in case you hadn’t heard) had an NCAA-record 41-game losing streak coming into Saturday’s game.  Adding injury to the insult of three losses, the team’s leader in assists (Freddie Jackson) was injured against ODU and didn’t play at Towson.  Buzz Peterson has talented players on this roster, but they are still learning to play as a unit.

10. Hofstra (9th last week) – The Pride have one win since 2012 started, a two-point win over James Madison.  Monday they lost at Virginia Commonwealth, at home Wednesday to George Mason, and in Boston Saturday to Northeastern.  This team is fighting hard for Coach Mo Cassara, but there have been several breaks go the wrong way.  They have two home games this week, hosting Towson Wednesday and Georgia State Saturday.  Can they right the ship this week?

11. TU (12th last week) – THE STREAK IS OVER!  I had to move them up one spot.  It’s partially emotional and partially based in reality.  In addition to beating UNCW Saturday, they played well against Mason, Delaware and VCU the last eight days.  They have out-rebounded their last five opponents, and you don’t do that without effort.  Robert Nwankwo has five double-doubles in his last six games.

12. W&M (11th last week) – If Towson was moved up one spot, then last week’s 11th-placed team had to drop a spot.  The Tribe have lost six games in a row, and this ranking won’t be permanent if Towson loses their scheduled games this week.  Their average margin of loss this week was 17 points.  They host Virginia Commonwealth Wednesday and travel to UNCW Saturday.  Kudos to Quinn McDowell, who scored his 1,500th career point against ODU on Saturday.

Monday, January 23, 2012

CAA Basketball Bloggers' Poll - Week of 1/23/2012

The CAA Bloggers' Poll was released a little earlier this week than usual, and I didn't get to disclose my ballot yet. 

My article on Drexel's win over Northeastern was published by CAAZone.com.  I get to cover Virginia Commonwealth's game at Towson Wednesday, as well as UNCW when they come to Baltimore Saturday.

Also, God Bless America.

1. Drexel (2nd previous week) - At 14-5, the Dragons have won twelve of their last 13 games.  They held off a tough Hofstra squad on the road and dispatched Northeastern.  Georgia State's rough week coupled with the Dragons' performance puts them at the top of this ballot, even if George Mason has the CAA's best conference record.

2. George Mason (3rd previous week) - Paul Hewitt's Patriots are playing well themselves, winners of eight of their last nine games.  To whom was their one loss?  It was at Drexel by seven on January 12.  They downed Towson at home Saturday by only twelve; the Tigers had cut it to six in the second half.  Patriot fans should expect a crisper effort following that performance.  The head-to-head outcome has Drexel ahead of the Patriots.

3. Virginia Commonwealth (4th previous week) - After beating William and Mary by one point in overtime Thursday, the team came out and beat Old Dominion by double digits Saturday.  Although they lost to Georgia State at home earlier this season, I think the Rams are playing better than the Panthers.  Before tonight's game, the Rams have sold out 13 consecutive home games - the city of Richmond is clearly behind them.

4. Georgia State (1st previous week) - There's no shame in losing consecutive road games in conference-play to Northeastern and Delaware.  Their two losses were both by three points each.  But the team has now lost three of its last five after winning eleven straight.  Of concern for the Panthers - four different players average at least 30 minutes, while a fifth averages 28.  The failure to employ a deeper bench may catch up to them by the end of the season.

5. Old Dominion (5th previous week) - While Georgia State has struggled recently, we can't justify moving the Monarchs up a spot after committing 26 turnovers in its last game.  It's odd to see seniors like Iliadis have exceptional games against Hofstra and Towson, only to disappear Saturday.  They face a well-coached Huskies team Monday then travel to UNCW.  We'll see how well they can respond to losing to the Rams in such a fashion.

6. Northeastern (6th previous week) - Our favorite university in Boston started their week shooting lights-out from three-point land against Georgia State.  They needed all eleven of their treys (on 21 attempts) as they beat the Panthers by (fittingly) three points.  But they ran into a buzzsaw Saturday at Drexel.  Down 25-7, they came back to within 25-22 before Drexel got back on track; the Huskies didn't get that close again.  But they're still playing better than Delaware or UNCW, so they don't move from this spot.

7. Delaware (8th previous week) - After Georgia State fell at Northeastern, they traveled to Delaware to take on the Blue Hens.  Monte Ross' squad needed double-overtime to beat the Panthers by three; Jarvis Threatt broke the program's freshman record by scoring 30 in the contest.  We moved them up a slot because they're playing better than the Seahawks right now (see below).  Althought the 'Hawks beat Delaware in early January, we think the Hens would win in a rematch.

8. UNC Wilmington (7th previous week) - The Seahawks escaped William and Mary with a two-point victory; they had lost their previous three games (at Georgia State, then home against Drexel and James Madison).  The average margin of defeat in those games was 14 points.  Keith Rendleman is averaging a double-double but is getting less help from the freshmen than he was earlier this season.

9. Hofstra (9th previous week) - After all those close losses, the Pride fans got their first conference win over James Madison this past Saturday.  The win validated our position that they belonged above JMU in our poll, despite a winless conference record.  Moore, McMillan and Lester are solid CAA players who need just a bit more help consistently from the rest of the team.  They had Drexel on the ropes last Wednesday (down two points with 17 seconds left) but they lost by four.  Coach Mo has them playing hard. 

10. James Madison (10th previous week) - I just don't get this team.  There's plenty of talent but they just haven't learned how to win.  I expected Coach Matt Brady to have this team winning by this season.  This is no criticism, more surprise that they haven't improved under Brady.  Not having Goins hurts the frontcourt, but he couldn't have saved the team from six losses in their last eight contests.  They're 0-4 in their home conference games this year.

11. William and Mary (11th previous week) - Since January started, the Tribe have two wins: a seven-point win over James Madison and a win over Towson.  They lost to Virginia Commonwealth by one point in overtime, then lost by UNCW Saturday by two points.  It doesn't get easier as they host Drexel Monday then hit the road at JMU and ODU.

12. Towson (12th previous week) - This team out-rebounded George Mason 43-30, which included an impressive 22 offensive rebounds.  A large part of rebounding is effort, and these players are playing hard for Coach Skerry.  Nwankwo had 14 points and 13 rebounds, while Marcus Damas led the team with 19 points.  Against Old Dominion they kept the margin to single-digits most of the first half, but just couldn't hang in the second half.  The cavalry comes next year, we promise.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

NFL Playoffs in Baltimore

I had forgotten what it's like to root for a football team in the playoffs, until ODU made the FCS playoffs at the end of last season.  So it was kind of jarring last weekend to go to the Ravens' game against the Texans.  Home games in Buffalo can fun and energic, but towards the end of the season, Bills fans can also be too despondent.  M&T Bank Stadium was L-O-U-D and their fans spirited last weekend. 

Another thing that's jarring is listening to Ravens fans call up the sports radio shows to do nothing but complain about beating Houston by only seven points.  That was a fantastic defense they had just defeated and they're playing in the AFC Championship Game for the second time in four years.  Conversely, Buffalo hasn't played a playoff game since January 2000. 

The Bills at home against the Jets in 2010.  Lost in The Music City Miracle is that the embattled Rob Johnson gave Buffalo the lead before the game ended on the subsequent kickoff.

I don't think it's accurate to call Ravens fans "spoiled."  Most of the fans I know are fine and can logically identify the team's flaws without bashing the team or individual players.  It's probably just the vocal minority that doesn't understand that Baltimore plays teams who are also trying to win the game.

I took pictures (see below) and wanted to post them before their game against New England.  I just didn't get a chance to do so during the week.  Big props to my friend Steve for inviting me.

Ray Lewis did his dance to pump up the crowd.

"...because sometimes you get chased by angry men..."

Opening kickoff.
Flacco threw a touchdown on this play-action pass.
Flacco may not be a Brady or Brees, but he's gotten at least one playoff win in each of his first four seasons.
Giving the ball to Ray Rice is never a bad thing.  Cam Cameron disagreed in the fourth quarter against Houston, but he gets paid the big bucks while I'm an armchair quarterback.
Two of the most beloved players in Baltimore are Lewis (52) and Ed Reed (20).
Flacco graduated from the University of Delaware, another in the long line CAA Football players who made the NFL.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

ODU Football 2011 Review - Part II

Today we’ll complete our review of Old Dominion University football’s 2011 season.  In Part I of our review, we looked at the season through the prism of the three keys we identified before the first game: a healthy Thomas DeMarco, the play of both sets of linemen, and a “slow-and-steady” approach. 

Despite a lengthy post that analyzed the season from those points of view, it was an incomplete analysis; it left out too many pieces of the puzzle.  For example, it prevented us from highlighting the impact of special teams on the outcome of games.  Also, there were four First Team All-CAA Monarchs; we only discussed one (CAA Defensive POY Ronnie Cameron).

So here, in Part II, we’re going to review specific events, performances and outcomes from the year that didn’t fit into Part I.  Enjoy!

The Monarchs warm up before their contest with UMass.

Best Individual Performances – Offense

5. Reid Evans, 42-28 win over Richmond: The Spiders came into Norfolk the first weekend of November short-handed on defense.  Richmond’s coaches devised a defensive strategy to take away the long pass.  Taylor Heinicke took advantage of this and hit Evans on several short passes; the junior wideout finished with 12 catches for 149 yards receiving.  It seemed like he literally caught everything thrown his way.  Evans would be voted Third Team All-CAA Wide Receiver following the regular season.

Goodwyn (36) in action at Delaware.

4. Colby Goodwyn, 40-17 win over Georgia State: Goodwyn was held out of the Monarchs’ opener against Campbell, so Week Two was his first action of the season.  Similar to the 2010 season, the Panthers’ defensive strategy seemed to be focused on shutting down the ODU pass game.  Coach Bobby Wilder’s offense was happy to respond with emphasizing the run – Goodwyn finished with a career-high 184 rushing yards on 24 carries and one touchdown.  The chance for another touchdown was denied after the refs ruled he fumbled at the goal line, even though video evidence clearly showed his knee was down before he dropped the ball. 

3. Larry Pinkard, 23-20 win over James Madison: Old Dominion’s administration revived the Oyster Bowl for the contest between the Monarchs and the Dukes.  Heinicke found Pinkard six times for 94 yards, and the redshirt freshman scored the only two touchdowns of the game for ODU.  Those seem like modest numbers, not necessarily worthy of a top-three offensive performance.  Right?

Wrong!  What stands out about this performance was the insane, “I honestly don’t believe that just happened” catch in the second quarter.  (The patient reader will be rewarded with a picture later in this post.)  Heinicke scrambled to evade three defenders on a fourth down play, and eventually threw the ball up for grabs towards the end zone.  Pinkard out-jumped two JMU defenders, who literally had him sandwiched between them, and hauled in the pass.  Without Pinkard’s performance against JMU, Old Dominion wouldn’t have been in position to win at the end. 

2. Antonio Vaughan, 41-14 win over Campbell: The season-opener was the first game action for all the redshirt freshmen that sat out the 2010 season.  Vaughan wasted no time making an impact; ODU’s first offensive play from scrimmage was a quick pass he caught and ran for 43 yards.  Vaughan was the star of the game, accounting for 191 all-purpose yards along with two total touchdowns.  This set the tone for his performance this year, as he finished second behind only Goodwyn with 960 total yards from scrimmage.

On his first play from scrimmage as a Monarch, Vaughan (5) turned a quick pass into a 43 yard completion. 

1. Taylor Heinicke, 55-48 loss to Georgia Southern: The Georgia native turned in one of the best performances of any freshman quarterback in an FCS playoff game.  In addition to completing 25 of 44 for 341 yards, he threw for five touchdowns without an interception on the road against a fabulous Eagles defense.  The freshman was also the team’s leading rusher (75 yards) and his rushing touchdown late in the game brought ODU within a touchdown of tying the game.  Alas, the Monarchs couldn’t recover the onsides kick (the ball failed to go ten yards before ODU touched it), and thus ended the Monarchs’ season.  But if Heinicke’s performance is a sign of future playoff performances, the Monarchs are in good hands the next three seasons.

Best Individual Performances – Defense

Arain (6) played his best game of the season against UMass.

5. Alex Arain, 48-33 win over Massachusetts: The wideout-turned-safety-turned-linebacker had the best game of his career against the Minutemen.  The junior finished with twelve total tackles, which included one tackle-for-loss.  Arain also forced a fumble and was credited with breaking up a pass.  Unfortunately Arain’s season ended prematurely, as he was injured against Richmond and did not return to play.  Still, Arain finished ninth on the team in tackles (46).

4. Ronnie Cameron, 39-35 loss to Towson: In the heart-breaking loss, Cameron was at times dominant.  The CAA’s Defensive POY finished with eleven total tackles, 2.5 sacks and another TFL.  But the less we talk about this game, the better we’ll sleep at night.

3. Eriq Lewis, 35-31 win over William and Mary: The redshirt freshman played well enough throughout camp to earn one of the starting cornerback positions.  Lewis’ production during the season validated Coach Wilder’s decision; he was one of only seven freshmen selected to an All-CAA squad.  But here we give Lewis recognition for his performance against William and Mary.  While he had only four tackles, he intercepted passes on each of the Tribe’s two fourth-quarter possessions.  His performance literally sealed the win for the team’s ninth win. 

2. Craig Wilkins, 45-42 win over Hampton: Pirates quarterback David Legree came into the 2011 season having completed less than 50% of his passes.  After an offseason of improving his game, he had the performance of his life in Norfolk, completing 25 of 35 passes for 260 yards and two total TD’s (one passing, one rushing).  Had it not been a Herculean effort from Wilkins, Legree would have guided Hampton to a win at Foreman Field.  Wilkins posted an amazing 17 tackles, including one TFL.  Five of those tackles were of Legree, who displayed incredible elusiveness against Monarch defenders most of the game.  Wilkins made just enough plays for Old Dominion to win.

Cameron (96) and Wilkins (12) led Old Dominion's defense this season.

1. Edmon McClam, 45-42 win over Hampton: Admittedly, it appears odd that ODU’s top two individual defensive performances came from a game whose final score is 45-42.  However, McClam’s best career game included the game-securing sequence in the fourth quarter.  The senior defensive lineman forced fumbles on consecutive plays, ending Hampton drives before they could answer Monarch scores. 

After the Monarchs scored on a fourth-quarter blocked punt to take a 38-34 lead over the Pirates, Hampton took over at its own 40 with 6:41 remaining.  Legree completed a short pass to Isiah Thomas; McClam chased down Thomas eight yards past the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble on the tackle.  Paul Morant recovered the ball at midfield, but ODU’s drive stalled after three plays.  Following a punt, Hampton took over again at its own 17; McClam sacked Legree on first down, and Cameron recovered the ball at the Hampton 10.  Two plays later, ODU scored a touchdown to stake a 45-34 lead. 

While Wilkins led the team in tackles that day, it was McClam who came up big in the fourth quarter to secure the win.  The senior finished with six tackles along with the two sacks and two forced fumbles.

Best Special Teams Performances

For this category, it’s too difficult to list one player per game.  The term “special teams” has the word “team” in the description, and as we’ll see, several players came up big in games in kicking situations. 

Old Dominion's punting unit was key to its success in 2011.

5. 45-42 win over Hampton: The Pirates came into Foreman Field and really took it to the Monarchs, leading 34-31 after three quarters.  But early in the fourth quarter, James Faircloth blocked a punt and Pinkard returned it for a touchdown to give ODU the 38-34 lead.  From there, McClam and the defense took over and made enough plays to escape with the win. 

First Team All-CAA punter Jonathan Plisco punted thrice for a 47.0 average, with a long of 59 yards.  DeMarco punted twice on fourth down, and both attempts were downed inside Hampton’s 20.

4. 40-17 win over Georgia State: In the first half against their future CAA conference mates, the Monarchs blocked two punts.  Alex Arain’s block was scooped up and returned for a touchdown by freshman receiver Blair Roberts; Paul Morant’s block landed out of bounds, and ODU scored on the possession.  These blocks and Plisco’s 46.7 yards per punt on nine punts completely changed field position in ODU’s favor.  Placekicker Jarod Brown also hit a 51 yard field goal in the Georgia Dome.

3. 48-33 win over Massachusetts: The game against Hampton was not the only contest in which ODU scored on a blocked punt to take a lead.  Down 26-25 in the third quarter, and having lost DeMarco to an injury, the Monarchs backed up UMass deep in their own territory.  Amidst chants of “BLOCK THAT KICK!” from the fans, Jakwail Bailey did block a punt that went through the end zone for a safety.  With a 27-26 lead, Heinicke led the offense to three touchdowns on subsequent possessions to close out the game.

A subtle coaching strategy on kickoffs also deserves special recognition.  The Minutemen brought eventual First Team All-CAA kick returner Jesse Julmiste into Norfolk.  In earlier games against Campbell, Hampton and Delaware, poor kickoff coverage resulted in long returns.  The coaches therefore directed Jarod Brown to intentionally kick towards an up-man rather than kicking long to Julmiste.  The strategy worked – on ODU’s seven kickoffs, Julmiste had only two returns for 46 yards, while Chase Danska had five returns for 51 yards.  Danska finished with only six other returns during the season.

The Monarchs also recovered an onsides kick early in the game after its first score.  Plisco punted four times for an average of 45.0 yards per attempt.

2. 27-17 loss to Delaware: This game would have been ranked #1 had it not been for one kickoff return.  Old Dominion took a 17-16 lead in the fourth quarter, unexpectedly hanging with the 2010 FCS national runners-up.  But then Delaware returned the subsequent kickoff 60 yards to ODU’s 32 yard line; Tim Donnelly threw a touchdown pass on the next play, and the Monarchs couldn’t recover.

But special teams played a part in putting ODU into position to even be competitive in the fourth quarter.  In the first quarter, the Monarch punt-rush squad forced Delaware’s punter to rush his kick and he fumbled the ball; ODU recovered the ball and scored a touchdown.  For much of the game this was the only Monarch touchdown.  Later in the first quarter, the Blue Hens attempted a field goal, which Chris Burnette blocked to prevent a score. 

Plisco converted this fourth-quarter fake punt into a first down.

Plisco had perhaps his best game, which says a lot for someone who has selected an All-American all three seasons of his career.  The junior was his usual stellar self with seven punts for an average of 48.6 yards per attempt.  A couple of his longer kicks drew “ooohs” and “ahhhs” from Delaware’s crowd.  But it was his execution of a fake punt inside ODU’s own 25 yard line that put his performance over the top.  Down 16-10 in the fourth quarter, ODU failed to convert on third down in their own territory.  When everyone assumed Plisco would punt, he instead took off running.  With excellent blocking ahead of him, the punter ran for 15 yards.  It was this drive on which Old Dominion took its 17-16 lead.

But then the kickoff unit gave up the aforementioned long return, and the game was never the same.
1. 23-20 win over James Madison: The heavens opened up the morning of this game, resulting a slick field.  The sun failed to make an appearance, as it was probably blown away by the strong winds.  Under these conditions, both teams played as well as could have been expected on special teams.  With the Dukes keeping Heinicke and the ODU offense out of the end zone in the second half, Brown kicked three field goals to account for all nine points scored in the half.  Plisco punted four times for an average of 48.5 yards per kick. 

Down by one field goal, the Dukes were able to drive into field goal position and stopped the clock with time for one last field goal attempt.  Immediately after the sound of JMU’s kicker making contact with the ball came another thump – the sound of Wilkins’ hand getting a piece of the FG attempt.  The ball had enough momentum to eventually wander towards the end zone, but it had no chance of splitting the uprights after Wilkins blocked it.  Old Dominion’s special teams had a direct impact on the outcome of this game, down to the final play.

Games Whose Outcomes Don’t Get Enough Recognition

The results of two games in the middle of the season didn’t get as much attention as others, but should have. 

31-23 win over Rhode Island.  On the first weekend of October, ODU defeated UMass for its first conference win.  It also lost the only starting quarterback it had ever known.  Although Taylor Heinicke played well in one half against the Minutemen, the true freshman was making his first career start at Rhode Island.

Down 14-7 late in the first half, Heinicke found Larry Pinkard for a seven-yard touchdown with 22 seconds remaining.  The Rams took a six-point lead early in the third quarter and the lead changed three more times thereafter.  Eriq Lewis sealed the win with an interception on URI’s last pass of the game.

Despite getting outgained 313-297, the Monarchs won the turnover battle with two INT’s on the day.  While it would be understood if the coaches altered the game plan to compensate for any first-start jitters Heinicke may have had, he still attempted 32 passes; the team did not deviate drastically from its passing attack. 

Heinicke’s first start resulted in the team’s first conference road win.  It gave him and other players a boost of confidence that they could win on the road in the CAA.

37-14 win over Villanova.  On Homecoming weekend in October at home, Old Dominion lost in heart-breaking fashion against Towson.  Up next for the Monarchs was a talented-but-vastly-inexperienced Villanova team.  It would be understandable for the Monarchs to have come out deflated against the Wildcats.
Let this be the last time the Towson game is referenced.

Instead, they were as crisp as usual.  Antonio Vaughan and walk-on running back Lorenzo Smith scored 42-and-53 yard plays in the first nine minutes of the quarter, respectively, sparking the team to an early lead.  The Wildcats showed signs of life in the first half, cutting the lead to 23-14 at one point, but ODU’s defense shut down their offense in the second half. 

Simply put, the Monarchs did not let the loss to Towson define their season.  The following week was the Oyster Bowl against JMU, which got considerably more attention than the Monarchs’ win over Villanova.  Nevertheless, the ability to depart Philadelphia with a convincing “W” immediately after the Towson game showed the resiliency of the squad.

Most Impactful Freshman

3. Larry Pinkard, wide receiver.  Pinkard finished behind fellow freshman Vaughan in both receptions (37 to 47) and receiving yards (488 to 520).  But Pinkard finished tied with running back Angus Harper for most total touchdowns with ten (nine receiving, one on the blocked punt).  Said another way, one of every four of his receptions went for a touchdown.  Pinkard seemed to pick up his game midway through the season, which coincided with Heinicke’s assumption of the starter’s role.  For these reasons, we’re going with Pinkard.

ODU fans didn't hear much of Lovato's name this season. 

2. Rick Lovato, long-snapper: In its first two seasons of existence, ODU got All-American performances from its long-snapper, Dustin Phillips.  With the graduation of Phillips after the 2010 season, Coach Wilder went with a true freshman from Middletown, NJ, as his replacement.  Lovato went on to have a season when fans did not call out his name.  THIS IS A GOOD THING FOR A LONG SNAPPER!  We can only think of one snap that was errant, on a field goal attempt to close the first half against JMU.  (The kick was blocked.)  For a program that emphasizes excellence on special teams, Lovato deserves recognition for his performance this season.

1. Taylor Heinicke, quarterback.  The freshman was recently awarded College Football Performance Award’s National Performer of the Year; it was the first time a freshman received the award.  He was named to the Third Team All-CAA as quarterback.  He had 25 touchdowns against one interception, which came at the end of the loss to Towson.  The young man just has “it.”

Best Individual Moment

This is not meant to identify a specific play necessarily; there are various moments that occur throughout games that help define seasons.  Sometimes the moments are bigger than the plays themselves.

5. Old Dominion taking a 17-16 lead at Delaware.  A team that had played 25 game in its entire existence went on the road to play the previous year’s national runners-up in its first-ever conference game.  On the touchdown, DeMarco scrambled first to his left and then to his right to complete a touchdown pass to Antonio Vaughan.  The extra point gave ODU the lead and put the rest of the conference on notice.  Win or lose (and the team DID lose), this moment was proof to the team that they could already compete with the conference’s best programs.

Old Dominion's front seven held Delaware to only 80 rushing yards on 38 carries, keeping the team in the game into the fourth quarter.

4. Pinkard’s second touchdown against JMU.  We thought Heinicke was just throwing it up for grabs to avoid a sack around the 40 yard line.  Instead, Pinkard came away with the catch against two JMU defenders. 

Larry Pinkard caught this pass for an unbelievable touchdown on fourth down.  (PHOTO CREDITED TO STEPHEN M. KATZ OF THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT)

3. Bailey’s blocked punt against UMass.  There were other blocked punts and kicks throughout the season (eleven total in 13 games), but this one was needed more meaningful than the others.  The team lost DeMarco and squandered a 25-0 lead.  There was a vibe to the crowd when UMass lined up to punt.  The Monarchs blocked a punt against Hampton to take a lead, so the fans more than just hoped for another one here; they expected it.  Bailey delivered, and ODU took back the lead.  The win would mark the team’s first conference victory.

2. DeMarco entering the game at quarterback against Richmond.  As previously discussed, DeMarco handled his demotion upon Heinicke’s strong performance as well as a senior quarterback could handle it.  With a two-touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, and amid “DE-MAR-CO!” chants, Coach Wilder sent DeMarco in to replace Heinicke.  Although it was not his last action at quarterback at Foreman Field (he also played the next home game late against Norfolk State), it was fitting for the most important football Monarch in its brief history to see the field on Senior Night.

DeMarco was honored at the start of Senior Day.
1. Craig Wilkins blocking JMU’s field goal attempt to end the game.  The rivalry between the schools extended beyond basketball to the football field.  It’s going to be hard for the programs to top this game.

Team MVP

4. Jonathan Plisco.  Of Plisco’s 51 punts, 20 traveled at least 50 yards.  With the 2011 season being the Monarchs’ first in the CAA, they needed this performance from Plisco to change field position.  Add his two converted fake punts (he also ran for a first down in the third quarter against Villanova), and we’ve got a player who did as much to put ODU in position to win as anyone else.

3. Jeremy Hensley.  Hensley has been the starter at center since the program’s very first game.  While he missed multiple games last season due to an injury, he was the unquestioned starter when he returned healthy for 2011.  We’ve shared our thoughts in Part I that Heinicke could not have performed to such a high level if not for a strong effort from the offensive line; the Third Team All-CAA Hensley deserves praise for being the leader of that line.

Hensley (58) was the anchor of a stellar offensive line.
2. Ronnie Cameron.  Voted as the conference’s best defensive player, Cameron did more than knl ts dae e team in sacks and tackles-for-loss.  Having been through two seasons in the CAA with Hofstra, he led the team from his first day with his “know-how” on and off the field.  More than anyone else, he had the team ready for conference-play.

1. Taylor Heinicke.  Heinicke emerged as the leader of the highest-scoring offense in the CAA.  It was even more of a challenge given that he supplanted the most popular player in ODU’s history, but it was as smooth a transition as possible. 

Heinicke, his arm and his elusiveness took ODU's offense to a different level from the very start.

And there we have it!  With 2011 in the books, we now focus on the future.  Once basketball season is over, there are a couple things lined up to post.  How does ODU match up against the rest of the conference?  How will departures and additions impact the Monarchs?  Can I really attend all eleven regular season (and any subsequent playoff) games?

2011 was a memorable season for the Old Dominion Univeresity Monarhcs.  But with less than ten players graduating, 2012 should be even better.